Thursday, May 17, 2012

(Theory) The Key To Memory Priming - Decontextualized Passive Review

The reason I began to investigate this methodology is mainly for one reason: English is my native language, but I found it very difficult to learn new vocabulary in English. I was able to learn many foreign language words with little trouble, but not so with English. It is not due to a lack of understanding of  the English language, so why would these words not "stick"? I think I've figured out why, and how to make them (Or any other knowledge) more "sticky."

The following is pure theory; but even if I am a bit off base, I think I am onto something.

Regardless of how good you are at remembering numbers, if you are reading this blog (You have a computer, access to the internet, understand a bit of English), you likely know that the first three digits of pi are 3.14. Why do so many people know this? Obviously we are not all as equally adept at remembering numbers.

What is the answer? Through sheer passive repetition our minds have been primed to remember it. Before you had to remember it for a test, you likely encountered the number many, many times at school, among your friends, on TV, etc. By the time you were quizzed on what pi is, because of so many passive encounters with the number, your memory had been perfectly primed to recall it; regardless of how adept you are at remembering numbers.

Thus, if you want to remember something that you typically aren't good at remembering (A historical date, a number, foreign/native language word, etc.), how do you prime your memory to remember it?

Decontextualized Passive Review

What do I mean by decontextualized? Let's say you have a list of information you want to remember; a list of foreign-language vocabulary words or maybe a list of important years in Chinese history. You can scan down the list and look at each item, but the order that you are looking at them will never change. It would be better to write each individual piece of information on an index card and shuffle the index cards and THEN review them. As you review each item, they will not be sequential or in a predictable order. Thus, you cannot mentally "coast" through the information as easily as you might if it were in a sequence. Obviously you do not want to write each piece of information on an index card, but in Supermemo a Topic is a basically a digital index card that is reviewed passively.

Why should it be passive? Because while you might be able to connect two pieces of information and understand the significance of both (In 1912 the Republic of China was established), one aspect of the information is not very "sticky" for your brain (In this case, the year 1912). If you were to try and memorize the information, you will likely fail to recall it a number of times and it might become a "leech" (In Supermemo, a leech is a flashcard that you have failed to remember five times. It is statistically proven that it will drain your time). But as you (daily) passively see the same information over and over again (Without the stress of trying to "get it right"), very quickly the information becomes more "sticky" to your brain. Obviously using mnemonics will hasten this process a great deal.

Review? As opposed to what? Rather than giving the information a cursory glace, information you are priming your brain to remember requires deliberate purposeful concentration. This only requires a few seconds of your time, assuming the information is not exceedingly wordy (Which would be a violation of
the "20 Commandments of Knowledge Formulation").

I am not recommending "brute forcing" information without any forethought (Like writing a Japanese character over and over again as opposed to using the Heisig system of "divide-and-conquer-through-mnemonics"). What I have been trying for the past month or so has been this: after taking difficult information and making the wording as simple as possible (English vocabulary, Russian and Hindi alphabets, creating mnemonic systems themselves, etc.), I simply look at that chunk of information every day until it no longer feels "foreign" to me. Once it feels this way, I turn it into a flashcard and leave the rest to SuperMemo.

Before I began doing this, certain flashcards would be marked as "wrong" repeatedly and never "get off of the ground" in my mind. Some difficult Japanese characters, many English words, and a number of mnemonic systems (Specifically a system for remembering numbers) were easy to understand but couldn't survive the initial few days of the first review. But once I began daily passively reviewing bits of knowledge, I've been able to learn just about anything I've thrown at it (Mnemonic systems, English words, various foreign language alphabets which I am unfamiliar, just about anything I can think of).

How do you do this? I do not know of a solution with other flashcard programs, but Supermemo allows you to create Topics, which are basically digital index cards that are reviewed passively. Simply create a topic for whatever piece of information you want to remember, and when you see it (After first concentrating on the information), reschedule it (CTRL + R) for the next day. Keep doing this until the information no longer feels foreign when you examine it.

Supermemo is designed to help you remember, not necessarily learn. But by daily reviewing certain information in a decontextualized fashion has helped me "weaken" the difficulty of the information enough that I feel that I can "capture" it in a flashcard (Hence the Pokemon picture).

Again, this is an experiment that I've been playing with for the past month, so take it with a grain of salt. But it has worked wonderfully.


  1. I like the idea. I have a hard time creating a mnemonic on first exposure to a piece of information, but frequently after repeated readings some sort of nonsensical association will come to mind. And that association could then of course be added to the answer portion of the flashcard.

    Love your blog, glad that you are continuing with it.

  2. Ah, yes! I totally understand and agree! I am noticing the weirdest associations forming when learning the Hindi alphabet.

  3. Whoa! That makes so much sense. I've been getting incredibly frustrated with how many "leeches" I have been accumulating. I'm going to try this and see if it helps. Would you recommend deleting them and reinserting when they are less foreign?

  4. Hehehe.. I'm glad you're back!

  5. Maybe you can dismiss the item (CTRL + D) and create a topic of that item. Keep repeating the topic every day until you think you've got it, then reactivate the item.

  6. Hey LittleFish,

    Great blog! I've known about Supermemo for a long time (i had developed an interest in accelerated learning and in my internet searches it seemed supermemo was one of the more realistic/legit products out there).

    Anyway, im a procrastinator by nature but am finally going to take the plunge. Im taking two college summer courses starting tomorrow (6 weeks long). So I'm going to use Supermemo and treat this as an experiment.

    Quick question about SuperMemo: is there some kind of "shuffle" or randomize feature so that way you can avoid the situation you describe:

    "You can scan down the list and look at each item, but the order that you are looking at them will never change. It would be better to write each individual piece of information on an index card and shuffle the index cards and THEN review them. As you review each item, they will not be sequential or in a predictable order. Thus, you cannot mentally "coast" through the information as easily as you might if it were in a sequence"

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Built into Supermemo is a "Sort" function that lets you set the degree of randomization and proportion of topics vs. items when doing your repetitions. To access it, click "Learn" on the menu bar (File - Edit - etc. - Learn - Help), and then click "Sorting," then "Sorting Criteria." You can see a picture on the Supermemo FAQ site:

      Just keep in mind that (Broadly speaking) schools don't really care about long-term retention, so working hard at Supermemo might not immediately result in better grades (Which are mostly determined by skills in short-term cramming).

    2. The two aren't mutually exclusive though. I have been learning Chinese for about a year & a half and in my experience, they are rather mutually reinforcing / mutually beneficial. What I have observed is that studying material incrementally and repetitively from the start of a course has the effect of reducing how much content I need to cram at the end of the course. In other words, the things I've put into long-term memory don't need to be crammed, so the list of things that I need to cram in the last 1-2 weeks of the course is much smaller. If I have time, I can even add the cramming material to my SRS with the plan of putting it into long-term memory *after* the final exam.

    3. That's really good if you can balance things out like that. While it would be nice if the education system as a whole would change, until that happens the approach you describe is probably the ideal. Jump through the short-term retention hoop while keeping the long-term in view.

  7. It might help some to know that a solution in Anki is to simply create a deck using the 'cram' feature that does not count towards your long term learning.

    P.S. I really enjoy your blog! Your a great inspiration to someone starting out on SRSing, and your techniques are invaluable. Is it too much to ask for a high level overview on how you learned Japanese or Chinese? I of course understand if you're too busy, but it would be very helpful. I plan on finishing Remember the Hanzi before beginning a "Chinatown" of my own.

    1. That sounds like a good idea, I'll try to get a set of Japanese flashcards together. Not sure how long it will take, but it sounds fun to do...